In this book I examine a range of US romances and analyse them for their political content. As Emma Barry, an American romance author, has stated, "even the most innocuous-seeming romances tend to be deeply political" if we
define “political” as expressing an attitude about social relationships involving power. If power is the medium through and in which all people operate, then all human culture is political. Now, I realize this may seem too broad. If everything is political, then isn’t the term meaningless?
Maybe. But I’d rather discuss the political dimension to all cultural productions than to act like some are political and others aren’t — a phenomenon that I call “some politics get noticed, others don’t,” in which pro-status quo works are seen as neutral and reactionary or revolutionary texts set off alarm bells.
That's my preference too, and in this book I analyse a range of romances, to explore both their "neutral" (i.e. widely accepted) underlying political beliefs and ones which may be considered more "revolutionary".
Chapter 1 – Games of Command: the Politics of Literary Criticism
The esteemed literary critic Northrop Frye argued that "The notion that the poet necessarily is or could be the definitive interpreter of himself [...] belongs to the conception of the critic as a parasite or jackal" (6).
In this chapter I focus on Linnea Sinclair's Games of Command as I seek to clear critics of the charge that we are all parasites or jackals while still respecting and acknowledging the value of one author's interpretation of her own work. In the process, I situate Games of Command in the context of changing gender roles in the US.
Chapter 2 – Simple Jess’s Work Ethic
"Hard work is part of the national self-image" (New York Times) and in Dangerously Sleepy: Overworked Americans and the Cult of Manly Wakefulness (2014), the "Health and labor" historian Alan Derickson observes that
America's well-known pattern of overwork sets it apart from all other advanced, affluent societies. While employees in other prosperous nations saw their working time decline in the late twentieth century, the average worker in the United States saw his or her time on the job increase by over 160 hours per year. (ix)
In this chapter I focus on Pamela Morsi's Simple Jess and explore how the American work ethic can influence attitudes towards disability.
Chapter 3 – Go West, Young Woman
Yet another of the supposedly "neutral" beliefs that pervades US popular romance is the belief that "True American virtue and happiness are to be found by living close to nature on a farm or in a small town" (Nachbar and Lause 96). When a novel is set in the West, this belief can form part of a larger narrative: the "myth of the frontier" (Slotkin).
This chapter analyses a number of texts (both romances and Westerns) which provide support for that myth and then contrasts them with two romances which take a more critical, "New Western Historical", approach to the history of the West.
Chapter 4 – E Pluribus Unum: The Importance of Community
Despite American individualism, which may manifest itself in an individual choosing to leave home and head West, Americans value community. In the context of romance fiction, this is demonstrated by the popularity of character-based series, such as Nora Roberts’ MacKade Brothers and Sharon Shinn’s Twelve Houses series. I focus on these two series to demonstrate that romance can illustrate the ways in which communities can be destroyed and rebuilt.
Unfortunately, some romance readers and authors may themselves feel excluded by the mainstream of romance fiction; in 2014, Olivia Waite observed that
Beverly Jenkins is often named as the Queen of African-American Historical Romance, but she’s never won a RITA. In fact, as far as I can tell from hours of focused and increasingly angry internet searching, no black author has ever won a RITA in the twenty-year history of the award. Only a handful have even been nominated.
Beverly Jenkins' Belle and Karin Kallmaker's In Every Port are romances which depict communities often excluded from mainstream romances and give voice to their histories.
Chapter 5 - Roots
In spite of the travail it might cause [...] to learn of her origins, it was necessary. Everyone should be familiar with their family tree, both the blossoms and the blight. Otherwise, how could one find one's roots? (Halldorson 68)
So states one romance heroine and in this final chapter I examine a range of romances to discover what they reveal about Americans' search for their roots. Some may attempt to focus on the "blossoms" but there is also evidence of considerable unease about "the blight" affecting the roots of both individual Americans and of the US state itself.
Popular narratives play a vital role in mediating social change, informing their audience of new currents and allowing the reader to insert him- or herself into new scenarios in a way that can be related to her or his own experience. Its engagement in the present, in now-time, means that the political nature of popular fiction is never in doubt (McCracken 185)
Unfortunately, the political nature of one particular popular genre, the romance, has indeed been in doubt. Ken Gelder, for instance, has stated that:
Science fiction is a polemical genre [...]. Its social commitments and technological investments mean that SF inevitably has a far more overt political identity than other genres (some of which, like romance, can seem distinctly non-political). (71)
Romance may seem so to those who fail to look closely enough but it is hardly apolitical to imply that "The United States is a nation with a special destiny and mission. [...] America is a 'City on a Hill'" (Nachbar and Lause 92), the US is the "land of the free" and
The nuclear family (Dad, Mom, 2.5 Kids and Pet[s]) is the basic and most desirable American family unit. [...] Everybody should be married. [...] Family values are the most valuable American values. (Nachbar and Lause 95)
In conclusion I focus on the work of LaVyrle Spencer, and in particular her Morning Glory, to demonstrate that these beliefs have found their way into US romance fiction.
Romance novels, then, are political, and US novels are often political in distinctly American ways.
Where to buy:
Ebook: ISBN 978-1-84760-359-3 PDF from Humanities-Ebooks
Barry, Emma. "Politics and the Romance Novel". 28 May 2013.
Derickson, Alan. Dangerously Sleepy: Overworked Americans and the Cult of Manly Wakefulness. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: U of Pennsylvania P, 2014.
Frye, Northrop. Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays. 1957. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000.
Gelder, Ken. Popular Fiction: The Logics and Practices of a Literary Field. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2004.
Halldorson, Phyllis. "A Memorable Noel". Silhouette Christmas Stories 1991. New York, NY: Silhouette, 1991. 7-92.
McCracken, Scott. Pulp: Reading Popular Fiction. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1998.
Nachbar, Jack, and Kevin Lause. "Songs of the Unseen Road: Myths, Beliefs and Values in Popular Culture". Popular Culture: An Introductory Text. Ed. Jack Nachbar and Kevin Lause. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State U Popular P, 1992. 82-109.
New York Times. "What Happened to the American Work Ethic?" 9 Oct. 2011.
Slotkin, Richard. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. 1992. New York: HarperPerennial, 1993.